“Dispossessed in the Land of Dreams”
“Their rent was actually a couple of hundred dollars more than James’s monthly Social Security benefits, but he made up the rest by piecing together odd jobs. They looked for a new apartment for two months and didn’t find anything close to their price range. Their landlord gave them a six-week extension, but it yielded nothing. When mid-October came, Suzan and James had no choice but to leave. With hurried help from neighbors, they packed most of their belongings into two storage units and a ramshackle 1994 Ford Explorer which they called “the van.” They didn’t know where they were going.
A majority of the homeless population in Palo Alto — 93 percent — ends up sleeping outside or in their cars. In part, that’s because Palo Alto, a technology boomtown that boasts a per capita income well over twice the average for California, has almost no shelter space: For the city’s homeless population, estimated to be at least 157, there are just 15 beds that rotate among city churches through a shelter program called Hotel de Zink; a charity organizes a loose network of 130 spare rooms, regular people motivated to offer up their homes only by neighborly goodwill. The lack of shelter space in Palo Alto — and more broadly in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, which comprise the peninsula south of San Francisco and around San Jose — is unusual for an area of its size and population. A 2013 census showed Santa Clara County having more than 7,000 homeless people, the fifth-highest homeless population per capita in the country and among the highest populations sleeping outside or in unsuitable shelters like vehicles…
A few months in, a nice man in a 7-Eleven parking lot told them about a former high school turned community center on the eastern side of town called Cubberley… Cubberley was a psychic relief because it solved so many basic needs: It had a place to bathe in the morning, a place to charge your phone. The parking lot had also formed its own etiquette and sense of community. People tended to park in the same places, a spot or two next to their neighbors, and they recognized one another and nodded at night. They weren’t exactly friends, but they were people who trusted each other, an impromptu neighborhood no one wanted to lose after losing so much. It was safe, a good place to spend the night. But it was next door to a segment of homeowners who were fighting hard to move the car dwellers out…
Most people told me if they had to sell their homes today they wouldn’t be able to buy again anywhere in the area, which means many Palo Altans have all of their wealth tied up in expensive homes that they can’t access without upending their lives. It makes everyone anxious… The outcry from the neighbors over Cubberley was so fierce that it reshaped Palo Alto’s city government. The city council is nonpartisan, but a faction emerged that revived an old, slow-growth movement in town, known as the “residentialists.” Their concerns are varied (among them, the perennial suburban concerns of property values and traffic), but their influence has been to block any new development of affordable housing and shoo people like Suzan and James away from Palo Alto.”
Sometime in July 2012, Suzan Russaw and her husband, James, received a letter from their landlord asking them to vacate…newrepublic.com
I’m excited to see this article, to see the negatives of Palo Alto being talked about — my mom has been involved with a lot of the stuff talked about in here; her church runs part of Hotel de Zinc in addition to big, open door meals and she’s gotten to know a lot of people in Palo Alto who don’t have homes. She kept me updated on the Cubberly thing and I don’t think either of us is going to forgive Palo Alto for making these absurd and unnecessary “slow growth” policies. Like, there was also a fight to maintain a trailer park, an established community where lots of people live including students at a bunch of the schools. The owner wanted to sell the land, so he was kicking everyone out. Palo Alto had just made a commitment (with funding) to have more affordable housing. So, there was an obvious moment here to use that funding to save this community.
And when the city council did it, we acted in celebration, but really… If any other neighborhood had been threatened like that, there wouldn’t have been a question.
To me, this also has a very direct link to the mental health problems here. The pressure to succeed has an unspoken rational tinge: in order to continue to live in the community we grew up in and might still love, we need to be phenomenally economically successful.